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The Rough Road of the “Regulars”

“Discipline is the soul of an army,” wrote George Washington. “It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.” That was true enough in July 1759, when the French and Indian War was in full flame and Washington’s Virginia volunteers were on the move and fighting. A century later, however, the soldiers who manned young America’s frontier strongholds in peacetime might have given the father of our country a taste of friendly fire for making a remark like that. They had all the discipline they could stand, but a soul? That was another matter.

The world of the men serving in the U.S. Army on the eve of the Civil War was a featureless timescape of mind-numbing boredom punctuated only by back-breaking work and the predictable call of empty routine. Most troops were posted west of the Mississippi River in places far from any trace of civilization. There was plenty of mindless physical labor to drain their energy and their spirits, but precious few ways to rejuvenate them.

With so little adventure associated with military service in the 1850s, what inducement could possibly have attracted recruits to the army? The answer is simple: steady pay. For recent European immigrants who found it difficult to overcome prejudices and get decent jobs, that was incentive enough, and many of them joined the army.

The steady pay that lured these poor immigrants also lured 100-percent-American hucksters who wanted the army’s money without the rigors of military life. These crass opportunists peddled temporary escape from exhaustion and boredom to the Western soldiers in the forms of whiskey and sex.

When the Civil War began, military life suddenly had the potential for excitement. There would be plenty of opportunities for real fighting. But the old habits of the veteran army Regulars died hard, as in the case of the 7th U.S. Infantry.